Belfast Telegraph

'An example of those who fought the war and started to build the peace'

A prison photo of loyalist inmates Plum Smyth (left) and Winkie Rea
A prison photo of loyalist inmates Plum Smyth (left) and Winkie Rea

By Brian Rowan

The story of Winston Churchill Rea stretches from the decades of conflict into the era of peace.

A well-circulated photo shows 'Winkie' in prison with his then Red Hand Commando associate, William 'Plum' Smith, holding a wooden rifle.

That blurred image aptly sums up the Winkie Rea of the Troubles era. Later he would become leader of the UVF-linked Red Hand Commando and, as the ceasefires approached, he was part of the Combined Loyalist Military Command, sitting at loyalism's top table.

A son-in-law of the late Gusty Spence, Rea's roots are in the Shankill. His paramilitary leadership meant he was someone who gave orders, not only during the conflict years, but also when it came to the big decisions linked to ceasefires, the political agreements and decommissioning.

He was a close friend of David Ervine and would be well-known to the politicians central to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

General John de Chastelain, of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, was one who knew him. For peace to be ushered in, and the guns to be taken out of society, it needed those who were part of the conflict to bring about change.

It is no secret that Rea recorded a tape for the Boston College project. Indeed, three years ago, he spoke to this newspaper about it.

At the time Smith had asked the college to return his tapes, a move which Rea saw as significant.

"If the test case is won it creates a domino effect for others wishing to have their material returned to them," he said.

Smith got his tapes back, but Rea didn't.

And now they are seen as central to a police investigation. In 2009 former PUP leader Dawn Purvis was also in a picture with Rea when loyalists confirmed that they had decommissioned their weapons.

"Winkie is an example of those who fought the war and those who started and continued to build the peace," Ms Purvis told this newspaper.

"The outcome of his case does nothing to further the peace process or help us deal with the past."

That past is still haunting the present - and those who have talked about it still face the possibility of arrest and charges.

Belfast Telegraph


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